Sunday, January 26, 2014

Chili Paneer

Has it been cold where you are?

Everything is relative, of course, but lately around here it seems that folks have been experiencing the cold more than usual.  I've been taking it in stride since even an extra cold Pennsylvania winter is a warm-to-average New England winter.  It even makes me a little homesick to be honest.  I miss bulking up in extra layers of baggy sweaters and thick coats.

Then again I don't miss waiting for the T is freezing temperatures or walking to class when it's below zero.  All things in moderation, hey?

With all the cold, grey weather I got to wanting something spicy and colorful for dinner.  Almost as soon as I think of spice and colors I think of a snappy little Indo-Chinese dish called chili paneer.

Aren't the names of south Asian foods wonderful?  They tell you all you need to know.  Chili paneer is made of peppers and cheese -- along with plenty of hot spices, of course.  Paneer, for those who aren't familiar, is a kind of home-made cheese.  I've seen it called "Indian cottage cheese" before.  For me cottage cheese isn't solid, though, so I shy away from calling it that.  If anything the flavor is closer to ricotta.

Paneer can be bought at an Indian grocery (check the freezer and dairy sections).  It can also be made at home with a minimum of effort (summary: boil milk, add lemon juice, strain).  It can be very simple or you can add a little flavor to it.  Either way it's a soft, squishy cheese with a slightly grainy texture that adds a welcome richness to a dish that otherwise is spicy stir-fried peppers.

If spicy foods intimidate you (and that's okay, we don't judge here) then go ahead and skip the hot spices.  It's a very flavorful dish even without the heat.

Let's get started, shall we?  Consolidated recipe at the bottom, as usual.

Chili Paneer
Total Cook Time: 45 minutes
Weirdest Spice: curry leaves

First off, if you're looking for other versions of this recipe you might have to search for "chilly paneer."  Don't let the ever-popular misspelling fool you.  This stuff packs a punch.

The original recipes that I learned to make this dish from do two things that I disagree with.  First, they deep-fry the paneer.  Personally I feel like if I'm going to eat solid milk fat, stir-frying it is quite sufficient.  Deep-frying is cardiac insult on top of injury at that point.

Second, the original recipes add things such as "ajinomoto" (the first recipe) or cornstarch (the second one).  I've got no problem with either as ingredients.  I just don't think either of them really enhance this particular dish since it's already got a lot going on.

Educational Aside:  Ajinomoto is a Japanese company that was started by the dapper gent who discovered MSG.  Despite its bad rep, MSG isn't some dangerous kill-you-dead cancer chemical.  In fact, it's got a lower toxicity than salt.  To give you a ballpark figure, let's assume humans metabolize MSG similarly to mice.  Based on that, a rough estimate is that a 60 kg (132 pound) adult would have to eat 900 grams or just shy of two pounds of MSG for it to be lethally toxic*.  You can take in as much as 10 grams (roughly 5 teaspoons) of it at a time without any adverse effects.  In other words, it's a flavoring just like any other.  It's popular in east Asian cooking because it adds a savory (umami) taste to food.  In fact, without the guy who discovered MSG we wouldn't even have the word umami (a portmanteau of umai, "yummy," and mi, "flavor," telling you everything you need to know).  There'd be a whole fifth of our available tastes -- salty, sweet, bitter, and sour being the other four -- that we wouldn't have a word for.  Cool, right?  So don't hate on MSG.  It's like Certain Other Anecdotes that have gotten into the media convincing people that something harmless will make them or their kids sick.  There simply is no scientific evidence to back it up.

So anyway, getting back on track and off my soapbox, I'm not using MSG in this dish not because it's some bogeyman spice.  I personally find that I don't need this dish to have more flavors in it.  It's already spicy and a little sour.  As for the cornstarch I don't let my chili paneer get watery enough where that's a necessary ingredient.  But do please feel free to check out the originals recipes above since I'd like to give credit where it's due.  If you'd like to include either MSG or cornstarch please feel free.  No hard feelings.

Whew!  That was a lot of background, eh?  Sorry for the detour.

You're going to want sliced onions, sliced bell peppers, and cubed paneer on hand before you start:

I used four bell peppers, one medium-sized onion, and one 14 oz. package of paneer that yielded about two cups cubed paneer.  I really like to use multi-colored bell peppers in this to make the final dish pop.  There's nothing preventing you from using green bell peppers or whatever's on sale.

I started off with our familiar starting point:  heating 2 tsp of cumin seeds in 1 tsp of oil heated on medium-high heat until they sizzle -- about 30-60 seconds or so.

I used olive oil.  You're welcome to use whatever you prefer.  Next are the sliced onions.  They don't have to be sliced super thin since this is a stir-fry and so we're not trying to dissolve them into a curry.

Saute the onions for 5-10 minutes or until they start to turn translucent.  Next up are 2 teaspoons each of ginger paste and garlic paste.

After that is a half-cup of diced jalepeno peppers.  I used frozen.  You can use fresh or canned if you'd prefer.

Stir-fry that for another 3-5 minutes, then add in the bell peppers:

Cook that for 3-5 minutes to soften up the peppers.  Personally I like to err on the side of less cook time at this point since I like my peppers to have some snap.  At this point we add in spices:  1 tsp cumin powder, 2 tsp coriander powder, 1 tsp chili powder, 0.25 tsp cayenne, 0.5 tsp paprika.  If you want to go milder then please feel free to omit or reduce the jalepenos and/or chili powder/cayenne/paprika.

Stir it up and then immediately add your liquid flavorings:  juice from 1 lemon or lime (your choice), 2 tsp soy sauce (can sub 1 tsp soy + 1 tsp fish sauce if you want), and 1 tsp Sriracha (ok to sub chili-garlic sauce or omit entirely).  Personally I like to whisk them all together in a separate bowl just to make sure I haven't gotten any lime seeds in the juice.  This time I had a lemon on hand so I used that:

Mix those in and then stir-fry until most of the liquid has evaporated off.  This is a fairly dry dish.  You can feel free to turn up the heat a tiny smidge if you're feeling impatient.  I find that at medium-high heat this process takes about 5 minutes.  About 2 minutes into that process I add 1 teaspoon each of curry leaves and cilantro (fresh coriander) and 1 tablespoon of diced scallion:

Bet you can guess our last step, hey?  When all the flavors are cooked in it's time to add the paneer.  Now, since we haven't deep-fried it the cost is that we have to treat it gently since it crumbles easily.  Just stir slowly and you should be fine.  Even if it crumbles a bit that's not a big deal.

I usually turn off the heat when the paneer goes in, stir it up a bit, and then just let it sit while I dish out the rice and set the table.  If you want to heat it up a bit more you can cook it for another few minutes.  Just be sure to turn the heat down to low so as not to scorch the paneer (it's made of milk meaning it's high in sugar and therefore will burn easily).

And that's it!  Dish it out over rice and you're done.

I like to garnish it with a little extra scallion.  That's optional, of course.

Tips:  (1) Add more lime juice if you find your dish is too spicy for you.  That will help to counter-act it.  (2) Add a tiny sprinkle of brown/palm sugar if it's too sour or too salty.  (3)  Don't add salt to this before you taste it.  Soy sauce is very salty and if you add salt before you taste it you might end up with a dish that's too salty for your tastes.  I myself never add any extra salt at all.

* Feel free to correct me re: my understanding of the MSG paper.  My research training was in squishy, earthy-crunchy humanities.

Chili Paneer
  • 4 bell peppers, diced (any colors ok)
  • 1 onion, cut into thick strips
  • 1/2 cup diced jalepeno pepper (optional, adjust to taste)
    • can sub: green chilies (fresh, frozen, or canned all OK)
  • 1-2 cups diced paneer
    • can sub: 1 pound diced extra-firm tofu
  • 2 tsp ginger paste or minced ginger
  • 2 tsp garlic paste or minced garlic
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp chili powder + 0.25 tsp cayenne powder + 0.5 tsp paprika (optional, adjust to taste)
  • juice of 1 lime
    • can sub: juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
    • can sub: 1 tsp soy sauce + 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp Sriracha (optional, adjust to taste)
    • can sub: chili garlic sauce
  • 1 tsp curry leaves (can omit if unavailable)
  • 1 tsp fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon diced scallion (plus extra for garnish if desired)

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet or wok on medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add cumin seeds and cook 30-60 seconds or until sizzling.  
  2. Add onions.  Saute 5-10 minutes or until translucent.
  3. Add ginger & garlic pastes and jalepeno peppers.  Stir-fry for 3-5 minutes or until fragrant.
  4. Add bell peppers and stir-fry for 3-5 minutes until peppers just barely begin to soften.
  5. Stir in cumin, coriander, chili powder, cayenne, and paprika.  
  6. Mix together soy sauce, lime juice, and Sriracha.  Add these to the pan and stir to coat.  Cook 2-3 minutes.
  7. Add curry leaves, cilantro, and scallion.  Cook an additional 2-3 minutes.
  8. Add paneer, gently stir in using extra caution to avoid breaking up paneer and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving.  (Note: can leave on low-low heat for as long as needed, stirring occasionally to prevent the paneer from burning.)

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